bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The unbook and the library

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 13 May, 2019

This last weekend saw a small conference take place on the campus of UEA, entitled ‘Early Modern Matters. Materiality and the Archive’, most ably organised by two graduate students there, Blessin Adams and Anna Wyatt. They had invited me to give the closing lecture, and I chose to address the conference’s theme by speaking to the title ‘From Archive to Ark: materiality in the library’. In my lecture, I introduced the idea of the ‘unbook’ and this seemed to gain some interest. It is a new manner of expressing a fundamental truth and I am not yet certain it is a necessary additional concept, so I share it with you now, hoping for your engagement — however critical — as I think about it further.

The starting-point is the library. We use that term in a double sense: it can be a book collection or it can be a physical place where books are kept. A ‘book collection’ cannot exist without some material form, but let us leave that aside, for the focus in what follows is the early modern library room. It is obvious that to state it is the place where books are kept is an insufficient description. That is, in part, because books obviously did not live in a library alone — devotional books or ones filled with recipes would most often have had a different location in domestic or institutional buildings. What matters more for this discussion is that ‘where books are kept’ cannot conjure up the specificity of a library. Open the door and look into a space where books are piled from floor to ceiling with no space between the piles — that is a space where books are being kept but it is a storeroom, not a library. What makes a functional library is the combination of books with the physical arrangements which orders them and allows them to be read. This can involve the built fabric of the room — its location in a building and, particularly, the arrangement of its windows — but some libraries were inserted into pre-existing buildings. What is undoubtedly essential is the furniture: the shelves or lecterns or book-cases; with them come the fittings of chains to hold the books, and, if they are book-cases, often the wooden frames in which to place the listing of books at the end of each bay. In other words, the paper, parchment and leather of books come to be a library when placed with the wood and the metal of necessary furniture. The library is made by things which are not books, and so, if we think of a library having as its purpose the keeping of books, these are the unbooks that make it possible.

That is only the beginning to unbooks in a library. Any library is likely to have other non-book items in its space: nowadays, these may include works of art, a plaque recording its opening, display cases and notice boards. In early modern libraries, there were certainly some items which were thought particularly appropriate to be placed there — paintings on the walls, busts above the book-cases, and, in commanding positions in the aisle, globes (both celestial and terrestrial). These fixtures and fittings are the unbooks intended to suggest to the visitor the intellectual inspiration and ambition of the library. They would often share space with smaller unbooks: coins and medals are the most common example, but they could take other forms. One I discussed yesterday was the presence in the library of Christ Church, Oxford since 1686, of a silver case with two mandrakes inside it. Here our sense of the library collides with that of the Wunderkammer, suggesting we might want to query any perception of fixed boundaries between the two.

All these are unbooks but there are some other items that partake of this identity, and they take book form themselves. An early modern library was known for its ambition in languages, straining itself to include not just the Western learned languages of Latin and Greek and the modern vernaculars (often French, Italian, German and ­— more locally — English), but also the ancient languages of the Abrahamic tradition, Hebrew and Arabic. Even this, though, was not the edge of the library: it would, at times, go beyond to languages for which there were very few readers in the West: Chinese, Japanese, Indian languages… A single specimen might be included without an expectation of its being immediately deciphered. In that situation, it takes on a role like the mandrakes, suggesting wonder at God’s creation: its role is as an unbook.

As this is so, then also the role of unbook can extend to volumes produced in the western tradition. In my talk yesterday, I used as an example a gorgeous manuscript in Christ Church by a scribe of whom I have written before here: Esther Inglis. The small codex in question is a copy of the Psalms in French, created by her in 1599 for presentation to Elizabeth I, and presented to its home in Oxford in 1654, by Anne, countess of Ancram (née Stanley). The gendered nature of this volume, placed within a male-dominated institution, is striking, and was certainly considered significant at the point of donation. There surely speaks of a moment when, to royalist eyes, the national political order (characterised by Filmer as patriarchal) had been emasculated and so keeping alive the tradition was a matriarchal duty. It was, I suggest, for those resonances and for the innate beauty of the page before the eye that the donation was welcomed, rather than for any expectation that the Students of Christ Church would actually uses this as their copy of the Psalms. Its power, in other words, lies in its being an unbook.

There are several implications of this. Obviously, this discussion implies a dichotomy between book and unbook which has an implicit definition of a book as an object intended for reading. We might prefer simply to insist that is an impoverished definition of a book, and insist that it is an object which has many purposes, often more important than reading its text. The concept of the unbook is, indeed, intended to acknowledge that any book spends most of its life not being read, and that a library functions through this truth: it has a need for the majority of books to lie unused on its shelves to be able to present its identity. In discussion after my lecture, the interesting suggestion was raised that unbookishness of a book could be temporary: while a Latin book can be easily read if taken off the shelf, a Ceylonese manuscript will be deciphered, if we wait long enough. That is true, though we can put it the other way around: that the ‘resting state’ of a book is to be unbookish, and that only at certain points does it become bookish — and they may not be the moments when it has the most power. We should also add that, whether a book is legible or not also depends on the language skills of the user: there is something subjective about its bookishness.

This allows us to rephrase the opening statement: a library is a place for books made by its unbooks, whether they be its furniture, its decoration, its curiosities, or indeed its stock of volumes. Some of those volumes can be taken down from the shelf and descend to bookishness. Petrarch asked ‘what is the worth of a library without reading?’ I suggest the concept of the unbook helps us unpack those beyond-reading values.

I will, though, admit my own misgivings: I suspect the terminology ‘unbook’ is too negative and thus permits an undervaluing of those non-reading activities that books undertake. What would be a better term, do you think?

Postcard from Harvard X: where’s the catch?

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 June, 2018

This final report from my recent time at Harvard’s Houghton Library comes to you like one of those sets of holiday photos that returning travellers foist upon their unwitting ‘friends’. Not, truth be told, that I have many snaps of Cambridge or of Boston — too many hours were spent in the library for that, you see — but what I can provide is a sequence of images of one codicological feature.

Trawling through the humanist manuscripts in the Houghton’s enviable collection, it struck me that they provided an interesting range of examples of how scribes in the fifteenth century ensured the correct order of the quires they were copying. As we know, scribes did not write into a bound volume but instead had loose gatherings in front of them and had to use some method for organising them. They inherited from gothic codices the practice of catchwords — that is, placing the first word of the next quire at the bottom of the final verso of the preceding one — but also looked back to ‘pre-gothic’ habits, some scribes re-introducing the use of quire signatures. The variety of techniques is well surveyed by Albert Derolez in his Codicologie humanistique of 1984, and I have no new finding to add to that. Instead, I want to allow the images to talk – and give them the opportunity to share with you a few more manuscript descriptions.

Let us start with a manuscript that was the centrepiece of my seventh postcard. While it is exceptional in many ways, in its placing and style of catchword, it reflects the most common practice.

Cambridge MA: Houghton MS. Typ. 447, fol. 179v – simple horizontal catchword in the gutter.


Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 5, fol. 30v (Florence, s. xv in.).

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 429, fol. 50v (?Verona, 1471)

Sometimes, a horizontal catchword might placed more prominently, at bottom centre of the folio, and it may be given a little decoration to enhance it. Humanist copyists were often less playful than their gothic counterparts – there is something austere about the archaising aesthetic promoted by Poggio Bracciolini, as seen in MS. Typ. 5, illustrated to the left here. But, on rare occasions, the catchword is used to serve another purpose. So, in MS. Typ. 297 (for which I can furnish you with my own description), the scribe employs this feature to reveal his name, by providing it rather than a decorated surround at the end of successive quires. At the end of the second quarternion, he writes his Christian name, Johannes,  around the catchword proper; at the end of the third, ‘de camenago’ and, at the end of the fourth, an abbreviation for ‘scripsit’. Here is the first:

Cambridge MA: Houghton MS. Typ. 296, fol. 16v.

Horizontal, however, was not the only position. Some scribes preferred to use the inner bounding line of the page as their guide for the catchwords and would write it vertically.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Richardson 16, fol. 21v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 143, fol. 20v.

You should just to be able to make out one on this image to the left – it appears faint because it is written in red (a sign, incidentally, that the scribe was working with two pens on his desk, providing this and the rubricated titles alongside the main text written in black). Vertical catchwords also could gain some decoration, as in the case of Houghton’s MS. Typ. 143.

In all the cases so far, the catchword has been obvious and, in the case of Johannes de Camenago, it was intended to reveal his identity, with a little more subtlety than a colophon would have done. For others, though, the art lay in the making this element as discreet as possible, so that it was nearly hidden. A good example of this comes from another manuscript discussed in a previous post: a fascicule produced as a presentation gift of behalf of its author, Andrea Castellesi. The practice was fundamentally counter-intuitive: it takes the vertical direction but divorces it from its common-sensical support, the bounding line. It instead floats close the gutter – in that sense, by its very process of hiding, it calls attention to itself.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 171, fol. 21v.

In my experience, such artfully hidden-so-you-can-find-them catchwords are a late development in humanist culture; an earlier practice which minimalised the intervention was to replace the catchword with a quire signature, usually a capital letter.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 375, fol. 21v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 266, fol. 88v.

Here are two examples of this habit, the one on the left by that leading inventor of italic, Bartolomeo Sanvito, at work in the late 1470s or early 1480s. The other manuscript was probably made in the second quarter of the century; here is a description of it.

This was an elegant alternative to the catchword and one which spoke of the humanists’ agenda of creating an aesthetic by looking back to a style that preceded the gothic. There are always, though, some who will be belts-and-braces. So, in a copy of Sallust which is Houghton’s MS. Typ. 181, there is a quire signature but this sat above a simple horizontal catchword that has been cropped. As the manuscript is in an Italian binding of the fifteenth century, the cropping must have been contemporary, so the intention was to hide the catchword but leave the quire signature on display.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 181, fol. 40v.

The art of the catchword did not die with print. In one of Houghton’s incunables, printed in Roman type that imitated the humanists’ reforms in 1471, and soon after decorated in the humanists’ favoured bianchi girari style, an early user has added vertical catchwords by hand.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, INC 3346 fol. 1

Cambridge MA: Houghton INC 3346, catchword added

Print, of course, developed its own practices, both of signatures and of catchwords — the latter were placed horizontally but not at the end of each gathering and instead at the end of each page (a reflection of how the text was printed on sheets which were then folded and, if necessary, cut up). That development later infected scribal habits, when a copyist like the great Esther Inglis wanted to show that she was aware of what print did and could do them just as well, even when they were not essential to her art.

What are we to draw from all these examples? You will have your own thoughts, and I would like to hear them. I myself will highlight two basic but important features. First, for the humanists, their reform of the book was not simply about script; it was a conception of the whole page, that worked with existing traditions but re-shaped them to create what they saw as an elegant – and eloquent – page. More generally, these examples should remind us that scribes express themselves not just on the line but deep in the margins; they expect to be seen even in places where people are not expected to look. The pragmatic implication is that the palaeographer must also be a codicologist – these habits can help us identify individual scribes and their milieu.

Finally, as I end my series of ‘postcards’, let me conclude with a thank-you to all the staff of the Houghton Library, who were a model of helpfulness, running an astounding collection. To spend time in their company — both the books and the staff — was a privilege. To all, I say, plurimas gratias vobis ago.

Postcard from Harvard IX: the genius of Esther Inglis

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 May, 2018

You will all have had the experience of sending postcards late in a trip, with them arriving at their destination after your own return. You may even have travelled home with them and put them in a postbox round from your house. The last two postcards to result from my time as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Houghton Library fall into this latter category, in as much as I am now in Oxford again and the warmth of my hosts in Cambridge MA is only a memory. In the case of both this post and the next, however, all the work was done across the pond, in the Yard of Harvard.

This penultimate instalment allows me to discuss an early modern scribe whom I met for the first time three or four years ago, in Christ Church, Oxford. I was handed a small volume, with a needlework binding, which I — like anybody else I have known who has looked at it — at first assumed was a printed book: it had all the presentational features of one, and the words looked too regular to be by any human hand. But turn over the pages and you realise that the plurality of styles of letters offered from opening to opening was just too various to be the work of a machine. Nor did the volume make any secret of how and when it was produced: it announced that it had been created in Edinburgh in 1599, for Elizabeth I of England, by the pen of Esther Inglis. I was smitten, and delighted that part of my role in the catalogue of Christ Church’s manuscripts assigned to be by the Keeper of Special Collections, Cristina Neagu, was to write a full description of the book, their MS. 180. It is now fully digitised, and the description is also on-line (though it is undeniably easier to read in the hard-copy volume, which is richly illustrated and ridiculously cheap for those joining the Oxford Bibliographical Society).

There has been much good work on Inglis, which has reconstructed her career and her oeuvre, as well as (more recently) thinking about the place of gender in the identity she projected. It is known that she was the daughter of Huguenot émigrés who settled in Edinburgh and that she was first taught to write by her mother. To say that she essayed the panoply of scripts proposed for emulation by men like Jean de Beauchesne is to understate her achievement  — her mastery went beyond that of any writing master. She was also prolific: from a career of about forty years, just over sixty examples of her work survive. Five of those are now in the Houghton Library. I could not pass up the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with her and to study all of those while I was there. It was also relevant because a future project is forming in my mind, which will consider the transformation of bookhands after print, with Inglis as the endpoint of the discussion. What I discussed in the last post, on Beauchesne, and in this one will act as a first trial for some of the ideas I am developing. I will express these thoughts through a comparison between Christ Church’s MS. 180 and one of those at the Houghton, their MS. Typ. 212, which is also available on-line. It is a volume made in 1606 and, like the earlier one relates to the Book of Psalms — that made for Elizabeth providing the text in French, while the one at Harvard, presented to Thomas Egerton, England’s Lord Chancellor, has a set of Latin verse summaries of each Psalm.

Both similarities and differences between the two manuscripts are immediately apparent. They contrast in basics like the format, the later one preferring an oblong style to the upright rectangle of the earlier one. They share some text — the commendatory verses celebrating Esther Inglis and her skill are the same in both. The connexions and the distance between them is perhaps best summed up in two images:

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 180, fol. viii.

Cambridge: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 9v.



This comparison would suggest that the scribe’s self-presentation is essentially constant except with a move from monochrome to colour. There is a truth to that, though it hides a life-defining change for Esther: between the production of the two manuscripts, she became a mother. We do not know the exact date, but her child, Samuel, graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1618, and so probably went up to university in 1615 – when his mother gave him a ‘thumb Bible’ of her own making which is also now at the Houghton (MS. Typ. 49 – remember when you look at it that each page is 46 x 32mm). As the age of matriculation was often between about twelve and fifteen, Samuel’s birth probably took place in the very first years of the seventeenth century, and, indeed, at that point there is a hiatus in Inglis’s scribal work.

It may be coincidental but I also sense an increased manipulation of her gender as part of her identity in the volume produced after her son’s birth. One element that I found interesting in the life of the 1599 manuscript was how it was part of a group of books that she made as gifts to leading figures in England, addressed to them in her name but to be delivered not by her — she remained in Scotland — but by her husband Bartholomew Kello. All the more striking, he himself was not permitted to present the gift for Elizabeth I but had to pass it to his patron, Anthony Bacon, who was himself a client of the earl of Essex. These specifics reinforce our established understanding of the intersections of gender hierarchies with those of social status, but a further detail caught my attention as I read the letters by Kello which allows us to reconstruct the narrative and which now live in the British Library: his script is fairly close to one variety practised by his wife, and it raised in my mind the question of whether she might have trained or influenced her husband’s writing.

I do not have a definitive answer to that, but a feature of the 1606 manuscript is relevant to this observation. In that volume, as in the earlier one, Esther inserts herself not just by a self-portrait and by transcription of verses in praise of herself, but by providing a dedication letter to the recipient, in French. What is different in 1606 is that this is followed by a second letter to the dedicatee, this one in Latin verse and signed at the end with the name of Bartholomew Kello. In other words, this manuscript presents itself as the result of a marital alliance. What is most notable, however, is that Bartholomew himself, though a competent penman, does not write ‘his’ letter: it is clear that Esther is the scribe and so his self-presentation is entrusted to her hands. What is on display here, in other words, is the product of a wife-husband team.

We might see this as going a little way to counter-balancing the prevalent social norms of gender relations. We might also want to interpret what follows in the manuscript as expressive of a particularly feminine identity, the range of delicately written scripts set off, on every recto, by the painting, in colour, of a flower (occasionally with a tenderly depicted animal). Perhaps there is an element of that, but I think the more significant intention is also a more complex one. Some of these images replicate and all (I would suggest) echo the title-page of the volume, where they form a border placed on a gold background.

Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 1.

What I find interesting here is that the style of illumination harks back to one that was popular a century earlier. Let me direct your attention to just one set of examples, in manuscripts produced for Thomas Wolsey near the end of the 1520s, and so a relatively late but particularly fine instance of the style. It would seem that Esther Inglis has become acquainted with manuscripts in this mode and was keen to engage with them. The result was essentially archaising (in that fecund term of Malcolm Parkes) and that, I would suggest, was her conscious purpose. The change between 1599 and 1606 was that Inglis had moved forward from creating a manuscript that looked identical to a printed book (but better) by looking beyond print and back to the tradition of manuscript-making. She presented herself as that tradition’s inheritrix.

As that final noun demonstrates, her identity as a ‘rarissima foemina’ (as she is called in one of the laudatory verses), was entwined with her role as a witness to the continuing possibilities of scribal production. Against the pattern of mechanical book-making in a printing-house, where men’s muscles mattered as much as their minds, her work hints at a different model of creativity, not one of a single female genius but of a family unit — a family unit, however, where the woman takes her central role. The 1606 volume ends with a motif of a crowned laurel wreath, with crossed pens and the motto ‘Vive la Plume’. In ribald humour, ‘la plume’ can be the penis, but who gives birth to that? A traditional talent, displaced in the brave new world of a mechanised economy, has to be protected and to be nurtured to survive for the next generation. The implication is that for the pen to flow, it needs the generative power of a woman, a wife, a mother.

Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 100.